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Space to Think, a new book celebrating ten years of the Dublin Review of Books More Information 

The Catholic Church in Ireland Today

David Carroll Cochran and John C. Waldmeir
Lexington Books


From Chapter 1 "Faith of Our Fathers"

A Lost Legacy? By Eamon Maher

In the past few decades, Ireland has experienced seismic changes in terms of its social, cultural, and religious habitus. The burgeoning Celtic Tiger, with its promises of unimaginable wealth, full employment, an end to emigration, has been shown up for what it was: a chimera. The gap between rich and poor, between the haves and the have-nots, has widened inexorably, with all the potential for social disharmony that such a situation bodes for the future. Severe cuts to public sector pay, savage reductions in the amounts paid to the vulnerable, such as the sick and the elderly, increases in the pupil-teacher ratios in primary and secondary schools accompanied by the withdrawal of special needs assistants: all these measures have all been implemented with a view to recapitalizing the banks and paying back senior bondholders, the very people who played a significant role in exposing the country to untenable debt in the first instance. It is hard not to be disenchanted by what has unfolded in the last six to eight years.

What role, if any, has the Catholic Church been playing in this drama, you may well ask? Once a powerful force, often for good it should be pointed out, it has now been reduced to the level of other Irish elitist groupings such as politicians, the banks, and the legal profession that failed to justify the faith that was invested in them. The clerical abuse scandals have removed any real claim to moral authority that the Church once enjoyed, and a rising tide of secularization has had a negative impact on the status of organized religion in Ireland. Church and State were complicit in many initiatives that resulted in children and young women being exposed to rape and torture in places such as the Industrial Schools and Magdalen Laundries. People often ended up in these places for the simple reason that their parents did not have the wherewithal to feed and clothe them, or, in the case of women, if they found themselves pregnant outside of marriage. The pioneering journalist Mary Raftery, who sadly passed away in January 2012, was instrumental in exposing the hypocrisy and self-serving attitude of the religious orders that oversaw the harsh treatment meted out to the children in their care. She wrote at the time of the publication of the Ryan Report (2009): "When protecting their own (usually financial) interests, the religious orders displayed a zeal and even ferocity notably absent from their attempts down the years to control the criminal battery, assault and rape perpetuated by their member Brothers, priests and nuns against small children."

Several other commentators were quick to point out a similar "group-think" mentality among the Catholic hierarchy when revelations of sexual abuse of children by a small number of priests began to surface in the 1990s. Preservation of the institution took precedence over natural justice and the safety of children. The systemic attempt at damage limitation had the effect of leaving heretofore staunchly loyal Catholics feeling dismayed by the drip, drip revelations of the detailed knowledge the Church authorities possessed with regard to what exactly had been happening in the area of clerical sex abuse. Pope Benedict's long-awaited pastoral letter to the Catholics of Ireland was issued on the 20 March 2010. In paragraph 6, he addressed the victims of abuse and their families: "You have suffered grievously and I am truly sorry. You have been betrayed and your dignity has been violated. ... I openly express the shame and remorse that we all feel.' Clearly, this was an unprecedented and historical apology, the sincerity of which might at first sight appear to be beyond doubt. But then Benedict began to examine what for him were the main causes of the abuse problem in Ireland. He cited the relativism that had taken hold of people's minds, which led to a blurring of the borders between right and wrong, the move away from family prayer and the sacraments, a failure of leadership among the Irish bishops in responding to allegations of misdemeanours by priests. Kevin Egan echoes the view of many in lamenting Benedict's failure to carry this line of thought through to its natural conclusion:

In hindsight. I wonder will the Pope realise that his mistake was to stop there. His letter would have had much greater impact if he had gone on to acknowledge his own and his predecessor's tailings in leadership in addressing this issue. The writers of a recent article in Time magazine entitled: "Why lieing Pope Means Never Having to Say You're Sorry." pointed out the Pope in his letter was merely apologising for errors committed by the hierarchy of Ireland but not for anything he or the Vatican may have done.